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Native leaders threaten to escalate blockades on day of Harper meeting

Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, left, speaks to the media on Victoria Island in Ottawa, January 11, 2013.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

First nations leaders are threatening to shut down major transportation corridors to stress the depth of their grievances with the Harper government.

Chiefs said they were waiting Friday at an Ottawa hotel where they have been meeting all week for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to show up for a meeting.

Mr. Harper has agreed to meet with the chiefs at his office this afternoon but they want him to come to them and many of the invited chiefs have said they will boycott the meeting because it is not being conducted on their terms.

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In the meantime, protests are taking place Friday across Canada and around the world under the banner Idle No More – rallies and demonstrations that were timed to coincide with the meeting but could now turn into angry cries of support for the chiefs who are refusing to attend.

And some of the first nations leaders are promising future action to disrupt business – especially resource development – that is a key point of contention for native peoples. They want a share of the resource revenues from development that is taking place in their traditional territories and they want the federal government to maintain a strong hand in environmental oversight – something it has largely turned over to the provinces in recent budget legislation.

If the Prime Minister does not arrive at the hotel, "January 16 happens," Gordon Peters, the grand Chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians told reporters on Friday.

"We are going to block all the corridors of this province," said Mr. Peters. When asked what that means, he refused to be more specific. "Use your imagination," he said. "We do."

Chiefs in other provinces are making similar plans and have promised that the Idle No More movement, which has been spawning protests across Canada since December will escalate as a result of Mr. Harper's unwillingness to bow to the will of the first nations.

Large numbers of demonstrators – many of them aboriginal but many not – gathered at Victoria Island in the middle of the Ottawa River on Friday where Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence has been living on a diet of fish broth and herbal tea for more than four weeks to force a meeting with Mr. Harper and Governor-General David Johnston.

Ms. Spence is now boycotting because Mr. Johnston will not be in attendance and a number of the chiefs are following her lead. Mr. Johnston has agreed to hold a ceremonial meeting late Friday with the chiefs at Rideau Hall but Ms. Spence says he and Mr. Harper must be in the same room together – something the Prime Minister will not accept. Governors-General do not normally get involved in the daily working of the government.

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"All we want justice, equality and fairness that we are entitled [to]," Ms. Spence said Friday morning in a rare address to the media. "We never changed your lives, why should you guys change our lives. We had our ways."

The Attawapiskat Chief sleeps much of the day as a result of her hunger strike and those close to her say her health is significantly deteriorating.

Ms. Spence also defended how her reserve spends government money, saying most of what flows to her isolated James Bay reserve actually gets spent outside the community.

A government-ordered audit, leaked earlier this week, found there is little documentation to back up Attawapiskat's spending.

Ms. Spence the money goes to buy supplies and to pay contractors, consultants and lawyers.

"Most of the funding that we have, it goes back to you, to taxpayers," Ms. Spence said.

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Despite the boycott by some first-nations leaders, Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and a handful of other chiefs will meet with Mr. Harper and his ministers on Friday afternoon. Mr. Harper has agreed to be there for the first half hour and then to return for an hour at the end of the three-and-a-half hour meeting to talk about the outcome of the discussion.

In the end, the AFN ended up sending 22 delegates to the meeting, including Mr. Atleo. But there were no representatives from Ontario, Manitoba or the Northwest Territories and  Perry Bellegarde, the
Regional chief of Saskatchewan was not in attendance. He was originally supposed to be one of the chairs of the event.

There were 14 government representatives including Mr. Harper and three of his cabinet ministers.

The Prime Minister's Office insisted that the delegation from the first nations be limited to between 30 and 35 people. That meant that many of the chiefs who have come to Ottawa for the meeting will not be able to attend.

Mr. Atleo has repeatedly explained that the discussion is not intended to be a summit or a gathering but as a working meeting to start progress on first-nations issues.

But that has not reduced the anger of those who will not participate. And chiefs like Mr. Peters are plotting their next move.

"Things all over the world have changed and the way people fight to protect their lands and resources have changed," Mr. Peters told reporters. "We too have power. It's unfortunate that that's the power that we have to be able to use. When we could use the power of our minds to it together and talk about the future of Canada. That's how simple this is."

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, who mediated the 2000 standoff over fishing rights in Burnt Church, New Brunswick, said the Prime Minister needs to take the time to listen to the chiefs and establish a meaningful process to address concerns.

"This imperial style has no place in dealing with this issue," he said at a news conference in Ottawa.

"The Prime Minister could have prevented this if he had followed up on his commitments from last year's Crown-First Nations Gathering ," said Jean Crowder, the aboriginal affairs critic for the federal New Democrats. " But instead of respectful dialogue, Conservatives rammed through legislation without ever consulting the First Nations being affected."

With a report from Canadian Press

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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